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Music Review: The Sound of Music

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The 50th Anniversary edition movie soundtrack for Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (20th Century Fox’s 1965 winner for the Academy Award for Best Picture) is a rare, wonderful treat (click on the image to buy the CD or digital download).

The songs, mostly European-driven waltzes, folk tunes and ballads, are memorable and melodic. These songwriters, whose work ranks among the most beloved and popular music of the previous century, are enormously talented and here the work (which is their last together) is ingeniously integrated into the story for motion pictures. The 27 tracks are fully remastered and expanded to include previously unreleased cues and all vocal performances for the first time in one, definitive release.

By now, most everyone knows these treasured tunes, which accompany and form the core of producer and director Robert Wise’s movie adaptation of the November 16, 1959 Broadway musical, The Sound of Music, written by Ernest Lehman featuring Christopher Plummer, Julie Andrews and Eleanor Parker. The score begins like the blockbuster film, silently until whistling with the wind through the Austrian Alps in a prelude to Julie Andrews as a would-be nun Maria Rainer, singing the title song, reprised with affection when Maria’s love for music—a sense of life worshipping one’s own worldly existence—is fully seeded with a band of aristocratic children.

Reprise is one of the keys to its success. From “Maria”, sung in doubt and debate by nuns at the abbey and again when the novitiate Maria rejects those vows for a woman’s vows to her man, to “Edelweiss”, sung as a hymn to one’s love of country and again as an act of defiance against government control, The Sound of Music brilliantly integrates the sacred and the sentimental and elevates both into the sublime. This is a work of mastery. Other famous and unendingly enticing songs include “My Favorite Things”, sung to conquer one’s fear, first to children then to selves, “The Lonely Goatherd” and Richard Rodgers’ “Something Good”, which replaces one of the stage production’s more pronouncedly Nazi-themed tunes. With lush romanticism abundant everywhere in the recording, everything is meticulously grand.

Music brings to mind the movie, including “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, first sung by children coming of age and then again as a corrective tonic by a mother to her daughter emerging as a woman of the world. “So Long, Farewell” pinpoints the story’s serious themes with its innocence at a celebration contrasted by its knowing, daring reprise at an enactment of dictatorship. Processionals, overtures, waltzes, entr’acte and the finale are elegant, crisp and magnificently sweeping on the newly polished, restored and remastered soundtrack. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” soars as an earthly blessing upon romantic love in the here and now and again as a song of triumph for the good. Suspense and tension build and explode, as the music for the man/woman dance envelops and expresses with its every note, and the whole score perfectly reflects the motion picture.

“Do-Re-Mi”, which, like generations of children, is the song of my first theatrical audition (and I got the part), remains a favorite. As the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization’s Theodore Chapin observes, this is an exceptional song unto itself. Following Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations to a tee, Chapin writes in the extensive liner notes, score arranger and orchestrator Irwin Kostal retains Bennett’s “playful woodwind counter melody (after “…so we put in words, one word for each note…”)”. “Do-Re-Mi”, in matching and expressing The Sound of Music‘s uniquely intimate yet universal plot-theme of music as a means of accessing and embracing life, is a work of art.

This edition features new notes from Julie Andrews, who recounts a marvelously personal story about Mr. Hammerstein and nods to the stage version’s Maria von Trapp, Mary Martin, as her vocal superior on one technique, and Laurence Maslon, author of The Sound Of Music Companion. There are also rare photographs and illustrations from the movie, which is available with a wealth of new and previously released material in a new 50th anniversary Blu-Ray, DVD and digital HD 5-disc edition, which I reviewed here. The 5-disc set includes this soundtrack, though not the liner notes.


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Movie & Blu-Ray Edition Review: The Sound of Music

 

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: The Sound of Music (1965)

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Director Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music for 20th Century Fox is an opulent and lavish production. The 1965 movie musical, written by Ernest Lehman, is melodic and cinematic. At the start of its nearly three hours, with sweeping aerial photography in famous opening shots, it falls and centers upon a solitary figure in harmony with nature.

The movie, adapted from the Broadway stage production, is Maria’s story. Portrayed by Julie Andrews with plain, plucky charm and a beautiful singing voice, Maria Rainer gives a singular voice to Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s music and lyrics, which contrast the plot’s looming conflict.

“Salzburg, Austria in the last golden days of the 1930s” is how Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1965 describes the unnamed Nazi prelude in subtitle, eerily agnostic on a fascist takeover of Austria. The young, freethinking novitiate nun exudes wholeness with the world just as the world constricts around her. The picture moves from extreme exteriors to extreme interiors as the music stops. It is replaced with the sound of a whistle, blown by a single father, Captain George von Trapp (gallant Christopher Plummer) who substitutes shows of discipline for expressions of love when parenting his motherless children.

Enter headstrong Maria, on assignment as a governess from a mother superior at the abbey. Maria is the captain’s equal and she acts in defiance of the master of the house.

After an initiation, the film’s first matter for parental guidance and governance is emergent sexual tension displayed in a charming rain dance between the older child, Liesl (Charmian Carr), and her suitor, Rolf (Daniel Truhitte), which dovetails with the main plot conflict, even as the song’s lyrics are a recipe for lifelong mental health therapy (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”). This colorful movie was made, to paraphrase the film, in the last days of Hollywood’s golden age, before scripts turned dark and malevolent, before casting scorned the wholesome and good-looking and before the culture widely went bankrupt.

The story of an independent Catholic girl and the stern widower with whom she falls in love juxtaposes with Nazi Germany, and, as with other pre-Nazi depictions such as The Mortal Storm (1940) and Arise, My Love (1944), combines enchantment with impending doom. As much as The Sound of Music is both an artistic and commercial success, and it is solidly both, it is in retrospect easier to see how it endures primarily as a piece of fondly remembered musical cheer involving a governess skipping and singing in the Alps.

In fact, screenwriter Ernest Lehman originally recruited director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Big Country, Funny Girl) a German-born artist who sought to enunciate the anti-totalitarian theme, when Lehman’s West Side Story director, Robert Wise, was otherwise engaged. Wyler scouted locations and eventually exited over creative differences, saying “I just can’t bear to make a picture about all those nice Nazis.”

The Sound of Music does have a Nazi problem. The movie, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, minimizes moral judgment of fascism. First, the baroness character (Eleanor Parker) and her friend, Max (Richard Haydn), explicitly appease the Nazis. In Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s original play, this is the reason the captain breaks up with the Viennese aristocrat, and the play’s songs underscore the plot point. The tunes are cut for the film. Here, the Nazi sympathizer is benign, offering a mea culpa after scheming against Maria. Worse, the baroness is the voice of egoism, urging the captain: “Do try to love yourself.” Second, the film’s voice of reason opposing the Nazis, the captain, enacts Christian forgiveness for a Nazi—worse, a Nazi that hunts his family. Third, while the captain forgives, the Nazi rejects the act of Christianity, endangering the entire family. The captain’s presumably deadly mistake is never addressed, let alone repudiated, by the movie, which ends with Von Trapp’s family fleeing into the mountains. The upshot: the only real conflict in The Sound of Music (after Maria’s wedding to the captain) is left essentially unresolved; an existential, universal evil goes fundamentally unchallenged.

This is disturbing for several reasons. It means that escaping evil is possible without naming, confronting and ending what makes it evil, the opposite of the plot-theme of Casablanca. The Nazis are outsmarted, as against denounced, in The Sound of Music. By contrast, consider Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which is unforgiving of National Socialism, released in the same era. The Sound of Music conveys that Nazis may be bad, but it implies that Nazis may also deserve forgiveness—and that cooperating, cavorting and conspiring with Nazis is morally defensible (it is not). One might say that this movie is a musical, not a drama like those other films, and it’s a different genre. But this makes the point more pointed; taken as a whole, The Sound of Music‘s theme is that music matters only as an aesthetic salve or temporary diversion; it has nothing to do with real life, let alone high ideals. The opposite, as masterfully depicted in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and South Pacific, both of which name, confront and defeat evil, and do so with music, is true.

The muddled morality is contradicted by the poetic and ingenious words and music in The Sound of Music.

“My Favorite Things” celebrates finding the good, which Maria later does after being rejected by the captain. “Do-Re-Mi” teaches a lesson in music to the children as they hop and frolic in nature and relish in the manmade, such as bicycles and a carriage, to a tune which imparts hierarchical knowledge as they experience the world for the first time. Music is crucially meaningful, not temporarily beneficial, in The Sound of Music. By the end of the first hour, the captain is at last in harmony with his children, reprising the title tune and infusing its initial theme of solitude with solidarity, as he reawakens to the value of family, his family, does his own mea culpa, and pleads with Maria, whom he has fired, to stay on. The yodeling song cements this bond, with “Edelweiss” performed with solemnity as the children explicitly choose to embrace their father’s seriousness one by one, displaying both loyalty and ability to their tutor, Maria.

The Austrian folk dance between the captain and Maria is beautifully framed, shot and choreographed as it expresses the movie’s playful, romantic sense of life—he tells her: “I’m sure you’ll make a very fine nun”—before the baroness desecrates what’s holy in the secular, sexual sense between man and woman just before intermission. The last shot of Maria exiting the Von Trapps’ manor mirrors her earlier entrance into the captain’s home. As the poster art suggests, the music is lilting, light and cheerful, countering the harsh, dark and funereal sensibility of the swastika and its philosophy. The Sound of Music is as striking and enduring as it is in expressing gaiety because, and only because, it contrasts with the heavy, serious political theme. This is elementary in each design detail of every scene.

Maria’s story is framed as her search for meaning in life, through an affiliation with the Catholic Church. As in The Painted Veil, the Church’s maternal nun figure (Peggy Wood) possesses an enlightened view of Catholicism. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is a song of life lived in the moment, here on earth, whatever its ecclesiastical implications. The reverend mother all but advises Maria to fight for a man, fight for love and fight for herself. It is a song of self-assertion. The Sound of Music is a Cinderella story—the tale of a prince and a country girl, an aristocrat and his servant—pitting baroness against governess. While the baroness seeks the worst of man and turns the other cheek, away from her knowledge of the captain’s true love and from the Nazis, the governess seeks the best of man and refuses not to see the truth, whether challenging the captain when she thinks he’s wrong or standing by him when she knows he’s right.

What the reverend mother has to say about this part of the plot is important, too. Hers is a comparatively secular blessing consistent with the movie’s heroic nuns who act to physically stop the Nazis. Suggesting that Maria should actively look to her own life as the standard of value, she asks: “And have you?” Maria’s contemplative, absolutist, and egoistic, answer—”I think I have. I know I have.”—precedes her wedding, reprising the nuns’ song about solving “a problem like Maria”, who is neither a will of a wisp nor a clown. Wedding bells ring, transitioning to a bell ringing as the agents of total government control march into Austria, with affable appeaser Max imploring the captain that “the thing to do these days is to get along with everybody” before the captain rips the Nazi flag and the family takes refuge behind gravestones at the mercy of a nun who is foremost kind old woman.

Julie Andrews as would-be Sister Maria deserves singing credit, of course, though the film’s success owes equally to its commanding hero, portrayed by sunburnt, daring and handsome Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain Von Trapp as what today’s intellectuals might call an “extremist” for liberty and individualism. After all, he thinks forbidden thoughts and abandons his country and his vast property for an act on principle: a life for his family in liberty, not tyranny. The sound of music is, in this sense, subservient to the reality of philosophy.

Fifty years later, most remember only the music. 

The Sound of Music is popular, I suspect, because it is close to sublime but also because it is mixed, romanticizing religion and minimizing Nazi Germany, pushing audiences not to think seriously about philosophy, while elevating the good. Like Life is Beautiful (1997), as against Bob Fosse’s dark, decadent Cabaret (1972), this light, entertaining and partially serious musical epic featuring wonderful songs of life commits a small yet crucial error in its depiction of goodness; it portrays the good and the innocent as merely separate from, rather than superior to, the evil and the monstrous.

That the hills are alive, to borrow the title song’s iconic line, is contingent upon whether one is free to live. As much as there is to enjoy in The Sound of Music‘s melodious splendor—and the movie musical is spectacular—in what amounts to a wholesome family’s secular triumph, it mitigates an essential moral contrast and condemnation, leaving me pondering whether William Wyler’s more serious version might have made something good even better.


Blu-Ray & DVD Review

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Everything one could want from this outstanding movie is on these five discs for Fox’s 50th anniversary Blu-Ray and DVD edition, which is strongly recommended for the movie’s fans (click on the image to buy the collection). The movie is featured in both Blu-Ray and DVD with a digital code, too. Director Robert Wise, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and other cast members offer audio commentary.

The features are wonderful, though don’t get too excited about the superficial piece on Julie Andrews’ visit to Salzburg, Austria, where The Sound of Music was filmed for exteriors (interiors were often filmed on 20th Century Fox studio soundstages). At 49 minutes and 41 seconds, it’s contextually skimpy on The Sound of Music. The word Nazi is never used and it’s more like an infomercial for Julie Andrews, who co-writes children’s books with one of her children.

Some bits appear on previous editions, including a 19-minute conversation between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer which feels natural and is well done. See Mia Farrow’s and others’ screen tests and the A&E Biography of the real Maria von Trapp, portrayed by Andrews in the film. In real life, Maria was always in trouble. Feeling contrite, she tried to live in silence and subjugation but she was too unruly. Indeed, the abbey’s mother superior picked her to be a governess to the wealthy widower and Navy captain, to whom she was married on November 26, 1927, though not for love according to this documentary. She was 22 years old and he was 47.

Maria von Trapp did sing, though it was a Catholic priest who taught the children to sing. Maria is credited with bringing the gloomy family together. Eventually, the family sang for the pope. The Von Trapp singers were, in fact, asked to sing for Adolf Hitler and they refused, fleeing Austria by train, as many know, and heading to London, then to America. It’s a great American story—after being denied entry to the U.S., they were detained at Ellis Island until the National Catholic Welfare group, a private charity, apparently intervened on their behalf and they were allowed into the United States—though Maria von Trapp appears to have been both controller and catalyst for their livelihoods. She certainly comes off as an aggressive battleaxe, part tyrannical collectivist who lorded over her children and imprisoned them well into their 20s and 30s, subjecting one of the kids to a choice between a convent or a mental institution just for running away and forcing the girl into electroshock therapy. Maria von Trapp also drove the family’s singing and commercial success. She is the reason, however, that they did not profit from the movie’s success. The family was eventually offered 3/8 of a percentage stake in the Broadway musical. Fox’s The Sound of Music became the biggest box office musical success in Hollywood history.

The Blu-ray edition includes beautiful pictures of Salzburg, including Mirabell Gardens, the Nonnberg abbey and a marionette theater that’s over 100 years old, though the collection’s Austrian features are noticeably absent a single positive thought from any Austrian on The Sound of Music, which is apparently popular everywhere civilized on earth except Austria and Germany.

Footage of a Carnegie Hall special co-starring Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews parodying The Sound of Music before Andrews was cast as Maria is worth a few chuckles. The documentary, “From Fact to Phenomenon,” subcategorized under vintage programs, is outstanding and probably the best place to start before or after watching the movie. Narrated by Claire Bloom, this is the most comprehensive, non-fictional presentation of the Von Trapps’ amazing riches-to-rags story. In it, I learned that the children’s mother, Agatha, died of scarlet fever after the children had been infected. The kids, contrary to Hollywood casting, were seven dark-haired children as pictured and there’s an interesting backstory on Captain Von Trapp’s attempt to avert Austrian support for the National Socialists. One gets a strong sense from family interviews that, as it’s put here, he truly, deeply felt a “funeral for my country” when the Nazis marched into Austria.

“From Fact to Phenomenon” includes a brief overview of Fox’s studio history, too, with regard to The Sound of Music. Theodore Chapin is the most informative representative of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein estates’ joint organization, and Fox studio principals with other experts put this 1965 picture into a business context with Fox’s big budget releases of the black and white D-Day epic The Longest Day (1962) with John Wayne and its bomb Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor; The Sound of Music had been gathering dust after Fox bought the film rights in 1960 and this feature thoroughly deconstructs the adaptation from stage to film, with footage of Andrews in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on television in 1957 and a proper sequencing of shooting scenes. Julie Andrews makes the perfect point about the great musical team with a response to a journalist asking why she was adapting one of their other works—their most beloved musicals are Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific—with the line that no one would question a revival of a Puccini opera. At 90 minutes, this 1994 feature is easily the best, with Eleanore von Trapp best expressing the family’s gaiety and love for life.

One of the 5-disc collection’s exemplary archival features is its audio interviews.

Listen to Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as they were interviewed (apparently by pre-CNN Larry King) from the Salzburg set for a radio broadcast. Andrews is obviously young and inexperienced in the interview, while Plummer emphasizes the necessity for an actor to be physically fit and speaks about the importance of being objective by not seeing the stage musical in advance of his performance. The actress who portrayed the head nun, Peggy Wood, is the most interesting cast member interviewed, insightfully observing that Rodgers and Hammerstein “have a true kind of philosophy of music” and that they’re “making a wonderful film in a fairy book city” which, as anyone who’s visited Salzburg knows, it is.

“The flowers!” Wood exults when describing the town, going on about silent movie star Lillian Gish predicting that Broadway ingenue Julie Andrews, who’d made an impression as Eliza Doolittle in Broadway’s My Fair Lady, would be a modern movie star, though the cultural rot of the late 1960s would put an end to the notion of a movie star.

Besides the movie itself, the collection’s best asset is an audio interview with the film’s fountainhead, screenwriter Ernest Lehman. His nonstop audio comments are fascinating, historically rich and contrary to almost everything that’s been pasted and claimed on Wikipedia. The feature, “Ernest Lehman: Master Storyteller” amounts to an invigorating monologue by the screenwriter about his work—Lehman wrote Executive Suite, Sabrina, The King and I, North by Northwest, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Sweet Smell of Success, West Side Story—in which he examines The Sound of Music in its various stages of development, as only the screenwriter can.

For example, Oscar Hammerstein told Lehman that he had seen his Executive Suite at the movie theater at Radio City Music Hall, an early confidence booster that made an impression on the writer, who subsequently took it upon himself to all but bring the November 16, 1959 stage musical to motion pictures. Countering the notion that Lehman had Robert Wise in mind all along, he explains that he had approached Gene Kelly, who’d directed an adaptation of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song (1961), pleading with the great dancer at his Beverly Hills home until Kelly escorted Lehman to the property’s gate, telling him to “go find someone else to direct this piece of s**t.”

Lehman tracks the seminal work in progress, explaining that he also went to directors Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Charade) and Billy Wilder (Ball of Fire, Arise, My Love, Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd.), who he says told Lehman: “No musical with a swastika in it can ever be a success.”

Ernest Lehman is the one who suggested William Wyler (Wuthering HeightsFunny GirlBen-Hur) to Fox studio’s chief executive Daryl Zanuck, who wanted Doris Day, who’d just finished Move Over Darling for Fox which looked like it was going to be a hit. These stories, in Lehman’s telling, add to one’s appreciation for what became The Sound of Music. He convinced the Alsace, German-born Wyler to come to New York City, which he did, to meet Lehman and see the stage version. After that, the two were to meet Zanuck at the 21 Club. Lehman says that Wyler told Lehman after seeing the stage version that he hated the musical. Wyler refused to meet Zanuck. Lehman sold Wyler on the scene in which the father joins the children in song—Lehman rightly pitched it as an expression of closeness with one’s parents and vice versa and, in any case, as an almost subconscious, universal longing and fulfillment—and William Wyler relented.

Together, they conducted research and it’s here that one gets some sense of how Wyler might have wanted to adapt The Sound of Music. Apparently, Wyler had flown in a private plane over Austria’s Alps while scouting locations only to discover that the pilot was a Nazi. According to Lehman, a heated exchange ensued and the Alsacian native argued with the Nazi until the plane almost crashed. When Lehman, who admits snooping in Wyler’s office, noticed what he describes as a “stack of Anschluss books” about the Nazi invasion, he became concerned that Wyler’s vision was too serious. Robert Wise had turned down The Sound of Music “as too saccharine”, Lehman explained, and, as a last resort, Lehman came back to Robert Wise.

The Lehman audio commentary is 30 minutes, and, in it, one gets a glimpse of Lehman’s greatness—he says he was influenced by the opening of West Side Story in writing the legendary opening of The Sound of Music—and, whatever his limitations, he rightly sees the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as a “fairy tale that’s almost real” which he is inclined to think “will be watched a thousand years from now…” The collection includes the 50th anniversary soundtrack (read my review here).

This abundant set includes filmmaker Kevin Burns’ “Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies” documentary hosted by Shirley Jones (Carousel, Oklahoma!) with an impeccable breakdown of each film adaptation. The 90-minute piece is extremely thorough and well-researched. Fans will want to see the excellent 1985 Rodgers and Hammerstein feature hosted by Broadway’s original Maria von Trapp, Mary Martin, which includes rarely seen clips and interviews with Tales of the South Pacific author James Michener among others. Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers were “remarkably objective” about their own work, according to an interview in this feature. Fifty years after its motion picture release, their final collaboration, The Sound of Music, does both musical artists proud.


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Music Review: The Sound of Music

 

Music Review: Cinderella (2015)

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The Cinderella soundtrack is as lush, romantic and evocative as the film.

From the happy childhood theme for young Ella whose businessman father remarries following the death of her mother to the wicked stepmother music and the sweeping themes for the prince and his beloved, Patrick Doyle’s music is matched to what may be the year’s best picture.

As I wrote in the Cinderella movie review, Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Disney feature is a deeply emotional and thoughtful epic about an innocent child who becomes a woman, the man who falls in love with her at first sight, their losses, trials and injustice by those who betray the best within and what it properly means to be rescued. The music (available through Amazon; click on the soundtrack cover to buy) is only fast and urgent in “The Pumpkin Pursuit” and cues and pieces for other action scenes that play better here than on film. Favorites will depend upon which of the movie’s multiple layers of subplots, themes and pictures resonate, from the father-son moments, which are some of the best ever made in Hollywood, and mother-daughter scenes, to hard, painful scenes of the evil woman who comes to enslave the child. My personal favorites constitute triumphant picture music (“Ella and Kit”, “Valse Royale”, “A Secret Garden”) of the happy couple letting go of the past to embrace a new, self-made future. “You Shall Go” is also glorious, underscoring that the fairy godmother, a beggarwoman, is the antithesis of the hyperfeminine matriarch. “Who is She” brings the ball to the forefront of one’s memory. “The First Branch” tenderly calls upon the film’s parent-child love. “Courage and Kindness” does nicely by the theme of the whole man. A couple of pop songs are included, though, unfortunately, Disney chose not to include the film’s “Lavender Blue” song.

Mr. Branagh worked well with composer Patrick Doyle, whom I first discovered in 2003 with his wistful score for Tim McCanlies’ Secondhand Lions, on Thor for Marvel (2008) and their collaboration also succeeds here. The charming, serious and intricately detailed Cinderella, an essentialized indulgence in old-fashioned romanticism blended with a radical rejection of conservatism, is both rare and original. That Patrick Doyle’s score is as slow, gentle and romantic as the movie makes for a perfect fit. So this is what falling and being in love sounds like.


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Melissa Manchester at the Grammy Museum

MM-grammy2In her premiere appearance at the Grammy Museum for its program “The Drop”, which highlights newly recorded releases on the distribution date, Melissa Manchester talked about her campaign to make an independent record, over 40 years in music and her artistic philosophy. Then, she took the stage and performed several songs. This was an intense, insightful interview (read my own interview with the singer-songwriter here) with the Grammy Foundation’s Scott Goldman. The sold-out audience at LA Live’s Grammy Museum, filled with musicians, record industry veterans, museum donors and those her daughter Hannah dubbed “fanchesters”, were held by every moment. Afterwards, the Grammy winner signed copies of her new album, You Gotta Love the Life, which she kicked off on Jan. 31 with two sold out shows at Spaghettini and the Dave Koz Lounge.

The event ushers in a whirlwind phase for Manchester, who turns 64 tomorrow and performs her new single, the intoxicating “Feelin’ for You”, with its blistering guitar solo by Keb’ Mo’, on Monday’s episode of Home & Family on the Hallmark Channel. Then, she’s touring again in Florida and the Midwest before appearing on Tavis Smiley’s show on PBS to promote the album, which appeared this week on Amazon’s top ten for jazz albums. The Bronx native, whose new album includes songwriting collaborations with Paul Reiser (Whiplash), the late Hal David and a tune with one of the co-writers of her Grammy-winning hit “You Should Hear How She Talks About You”, returns to New York City for a three-night engagement at 54 Below.

MM-grammy8The campaign to support the release of her 20th album began in earnest, however, in the Clive Davis Theatre at the Grammy Museum, where she regaled the audience with tales of the album’s guest artist Stevie Wonder joining students for an impromptu version of  “Superstition” at Citrus College where she recorded You Gotta Love the Life. There were also tales of working with Hal David, who studied journalism, on how that affected his writing what turns out to be his last lyric and of her singing partner on that tune, Dionne Warwick, and seeing her idol perform for the first time at the Copacabana. There were other famous singer, musician and star stories, too, including a story about working with Ella Fitzgerald, whom Melissa Manchester says made her more fully conscious of musical performance.

What makes her thoughts and answers fascinating is how she integrates each lesson into an intelligent examination of her own work and unfolds her storyteller approach to writing and performing songs, which she says she began to learn after auditioning for a class in songwriting with Paul Simon at New York University when she was 17 when his “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—one of pop’s bestselling singles—was at the top of the charts. Melissa Manchester was one of eight students chosen for Simon’s class, which launched a career of what she calls “deconstructing a song” in order to create each song as an expression. From Simon, whom she says forecast the change from melody-based to rhythm-based songwriting, she said she learned that while the stories may have all been told, the magic lies in the telling.

For example, she explained that she envisioned her rendition of “Walk on By” as a story of a homeless woman dropping off her two kids for the last time, an idea which spun into the audience and made everyone really think about the classic tune.

Thinking is crucial to Melissa Manchester’s approach, she said on Tuesday night. In fact, she told the audience that she teaches her music students at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music to “not be lazy about your thinking” and “to think as deeply as possible”. Observing that Barbra Streisand slowed down “Happy Days are Here Again”, she noted that it changed the way people perceived how popular music could be performed. She said that her own input for song selection while under contract at Arista Records, where she had some of her earliest success with mogul Clive Davis, such as the 1979 hit “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, was limited. Remembering her earlier days at Bell Records, she contrasted her relationship with Davis by noting that Bell’s president “did this really revolutionary thing…he left me alone.”

Almost as an exercise in self-redemption, You Gotta Love the Life bears the mark of her career theme of personal, first-handed empowerment and, ultimately, liberation. It’s as if the album is an answer to Clive Davis—and even Paul Simon—who told her to stop listening to her muse, Laura Nyro, whom Manchester described as being like a “shaft of light as a beautiful explosion” of music.

MM-grammy3However, reminiscing wasn’t merely waxing nostalgic during Melissa Manchester’s album “drop” at the Grammy Museum. Each remembrance served the purpose of what one can learn from the creative process. She spoke of lessons from Sly and the Family Stone singing the anthemic line “thank you for letting me be myself,” singing with Barry Manilow, Patti Austin and Ashford and Simpson on backup vocals and wandering into the Children’s Television Workshop in Manhattan which was part of Sesame Street. She mentioned working as an uherette and as a parking attendant and talked about discovering from a country music artist the value of meeting an audience following a performance. And she recalled being a founding member of Bette Midler’s backup group the Harlettes and performing at gay bathhouses. She may have been ‘Toots in the middle’ but that didn’t stop her from seeing that Midler basked in the “radiance of her authenticity” while giving gays a sense of belonging before the Stonewall riot in Greenwich Village.

Asked about her earliest memories of music, Melissa Manchester, who said she went to opera rehearsals with her bassoonist father, answered that her first musical memory is of her father playing “Greensleeves” and her twirling around and around, as though in her own world, which she later identified as what she calls “the sonic thermal”. How the Oscar nominee—the only artist to be nominated twice in the Best Song category in the same year—came to think, really think, about writing and singing a song—she doesn’t like “to see the rhyme coming”—is what she delivered with enthusiasm on Tuesday night.

MM-grammy5When asked, Melissa Manchester said that she wants her first independent album to reflect the joy of her life here and now. This came through during the conversation. As if to provide proof of concept without showing off, she then performed several songs, bringing the audience to their feet in unified applause, demonstrating not only that this pioneering artist loves the life; that part of the life which constitutes an audience—her peers, her fans, her fellow singers, musicians and artists—love her, too.

(Click here to buy You Gotta Love the Life as CD or digital download).


Reference links

The Grammys (2015)

Grammy logo

The 57th annual Grammy Awards were another showcase of mostly mediocre music and an unabashed advertisement for the host television network, CBS. There were no major breakthroughs, surprises or flubs. The main reason I watched was the enormously popular work by Sam Smith, whom I wanted to see perform, speak and, hopefully, win (which he did—four times).

Smith, who paired for a warm and inviting duet with Mary J. Blige of his introspective hit song about the one-night stand, “Stay with Me”, spoke with humor and rationality. He spoke of the man with whom he fell in love that broke his heart and led to his writing the tune. He also spoke of choosing to stop living for others and instead being true to himself as the turning point in achieving his goal. What he said is especially insightful for one so young and I have every reason to believe he’ll have a great career in music. Read my review of his brave album, In the Lonely Hour, which has sometimes been damned with faint praise for lyrics that are too plain—the more I listen, the more I think his simple, rhyming words are among his top talents—here.

Other Grammy highlights included a spontaneous Paul McCartney grooving to the music, Usher exuding confidence while singing a Stevie Wonder song while accompanied by a harpist, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine singing with a slouching, lackluster Gwen Stefani and carrying the song by himself very nicely and good performances by Beck, Ed Sheeran and Electric Light Orchestra’s founder Jeff Lynne. I wanted to like what Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett were doing while singing about dancing to “Cheek to Cheek” though I thought it was a missed opportunity. I thought Annie Lennox, formerly of Eurythmics, expelled a lot of energy during her performance.

The problem with the show is that it feels overly staged and forced, with these highly pre-ordained and publicized duets and “mash-ups” or mixtures of songs, artists and styles. There’s an excess of publicity pummeling viewers with promotional Tweets and posts and then an excess of performances that rarely live up to the hype. The announcer kept overselling each number during the telecast, forecasting that everyone would be talking about this or that part of the show. The effect is distracting and depleting. I wish they’d just put on a show and let it be, handing out awards here and there. Good music usually comes with some degree of spontaneity.

There wasn’t much that felt unrehearsed tonight, from the see-through dresses to the pedantic, preachy appearance by the president about creating “a society where violence isn’t tolerated” even as he addressed an audience with prominently violent ex-convicts and as he urges compromise with an Islamic dictatorship that subjugates women, homosexuals and freethinkers. The heavy-handed rap song from the movie Selma, prefaced by a religious song by Beyonce, felt preachy, too, with rapper and actor Common ending with a display of his fist to the audience after lecturing them in a rap infused with the idea that the collective matters more than the individual.

Rapper Kanye West appeared in sweat pants, looked down and rapped to an apparent electronic manipulation of his voice. Madonna—introduced as “my bitch” by Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj—did her typical routine, emasculating the faceless male dancers, who were once again denigrated and objectified, which appears to be Madonna’s only artistic statement. She dressed as a matador—surrounded by men dressed as bulls—and, after taking the bulls by the horns, ended up being gored to death by them. This came with Obama’s message urging pop stars to lead by example about violence against women.

The only Grammys theme, if any, to emerge, was faith. “I’m at your service, Lord,” Grammy winner Pharrell Williams announced to no one in particular after doing a gothic or death-themed version of his song “Happy”. Beyonce thanked God and so did many others and there were so many choir singers that it felt at times like watching the Christian Broadcasting Network. I half expected Mike Huckabee or some big-haired evangelist to come out and start slapping and singing right along. Indeed, the infidel was relegated to representation by AC/DC’s performance of “Highway to Hell”. Even an Imagine Dragons song during an ad for Target confessed contrition. No one dared to say Je Suis Charlie.

On the other hand, when Mary J. Blige reached out to Sam Smith as they sang the aching, gospel-tinged “Stay with Me”, they finished the song together, ending in an embrace after the performance. Affirming a common bond, they achieved through music a real sense of amity. This is the 57th annual Grammy awards’ telecast’s most genuine moment. There were others, but this is the music and moment which will stay with me.